"Ageing and gardening"

As one gets older, there is the need to rethink aspects of one's garden.
Sunday, 17 October 2021     

Massed bromeliads in the former garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

Almost exactly ten years ago, I wrote about this topic, after being inspired by a book called Gardening for a Lifetime: how to garden wiser as you grow older by Sydney Edison (2010), when it gradually began to dawn on me that I could no longer class myself as a 'young gardener'. I took up gardening at the age of 24, so for a long time I was by far the youngest in any gathering of gardeners. When I joined the local garden club, the rest of the members seemed incredibly ancient (probably in their 50s!) and I was something of a novelty. I had boundless energy and set about creating a very high-maintenance garden based comprised largely of herbaceous and shrubby perennials, and later went on to make a similar garden (my current one) on a larger site. Whilst my peers were clubbing, I was digging.

However, around the time of writing the blog, I had been chatting to two actually young gardeners, and I realised they probably saw me as I saw those Methuselahs from my first garden club. Along with this realisation came the insight that eventually I would going to have to make changes to my garden and my gardening style to reduce the amount of effort it all entails. These gloomy thoughts were precipitated by hearing that several of our friends had recently downsized from suburban blocks into villas with courtyards, or, in some cases, apartments.

For quite a while, I couldn't bring myself to open the book for fear of being told that I would ultimately have to be content with a few African violets on a windowsill. But I eventually started to read and was quite inspired by the book. Sydney Eddison was in her 80s when she wrote it, and still living in the Connecticut garden of some acres she had begun nearly 50 years before. She created wonderful perennial borders with amazing colour schemes, which became quite famous. She wanted to remain in her home as long as possible and in the book gave a series of hints of how gardeners could simplify their gardens and reduce the amount of work, without losing the enjoyment of gardening. Whilst I at the time, I felt I had a good few active years ahead of me yet, I definitely didn't have the stamina and energy I once had and a recent injury had shown me how quickly things can change, so I became eager to absorb the ideas that Sydney Eddison shares in her book. Little did I know at the time that within two years of reading the book, I would be completely crippled by an arthritic hip, so the tips proved vital to me!

A key point Sydney Eddison made is that many perennials entail hard work, requiring staking, fertilising, watering, regular division, cutting back and possibly deadheading. Apparently, it used to take her two hours a day just to deadhead her daylily collection! She suggested a critical examination of one's perennials to get rid of any that require too much work. Although her focus was mainly on herbaceous perennials, there were also a number of shrubby perennials that I grew at that time that needed to be cut back severely at the end of every winter. Whilst I used to savour this task in my younger days, I had often begun to think of it with dread, as I tried to fit in all this cutting back into all the other activities in my life.

The huge pile of prunings then need to be put through the mulching machine, a task not exactly relished by the person responsible for that, who was also not getting any younger. My passion for Salvia specimens was the main reason I had so many of these shrubby perennials, so I definitely decided not to add too many more of the really big ones (which require cutting back several times a year) to my garden and in any case, there wasn't any room for them! I did stick to this vow and in fact removed most of the huge, high-maintenance Salvia from my garden, and am now much more interested in the small, compact cultivars these days - of which there seem to be many more available ten years on.

Sydney Eddison suggested that shrubs can be used to replace some perennials. In my younger days, I used to think shrubs were horribly boring compared to the brilliant and flamboyant flowers of perennials, but they definitely started to appeal to me more and more after I read the book. Shrubs on the whole keep their shape year round, offering strong structural form and often have pretty blooms, and they require very little attention once established. They can also give a more serene effect in the garden, without the busyness of a massed perennial border. There are other plants, too, that can be planted and just left to their own devices with little required from the gardener. For example, I never thought I would gaze upon a clump of bromeliads with deep joy, but now I do just that, so glad that I don't have to worry about that area, which looks good all year round. I know a number of gardeners who have used this method to lower maintenance in parts of their gardens. In general, I find more satisfaction in seeing a decent mass of one plant rather than ten different plants crammed into the same spot, all requiring different levels and/or types of care! I also find I am repeating the same plant in different parts of my garden these days, which seems to give a more cohesive look.

The use of mulch and groundcovers to suppress weeds; making lists so that gardening tasks are prioritised and so you can quickly choose a job to do when you have a chance to do some gardening (and to aid one's failing memory!); employing help for heavier gardening work; and learning to accept imperfection (especially with lawns!) are some of the other points made in the book, and I have embraced all of these ideas over the past ten years. Mulching properly has become an important part of my approach to gardening, and I use our rough, homemade compost for this job, after having having a proper three-bay compost system built for my birthday a few years ago. Conscientious mulching really makes a big difference in reducing weeds, maintaining moisture, as well as keeping the soil temperatures lower - along with adding vital organic matter to the garden on an ongoing basis. Accepting help in the garden is one of the hardest things to do, but once you do, it is incredibly liberating, so I urge anyone struggling with their garden to employ someone for the hardest jobs and also to take up any offers of assistance, because other gardeners actually love to do this for their friends.

Of course, there are definitely circumstances when poor health or age-related disability simply make gardening on any reasonably large scale an impossible, soul-destroying burden, and in these cases it just makes sense to downsize. Sydney Eddison devoted several chapters of her book to case studies of her friends who had done this and how they have been able to keep up their interest in gardening on a much smaller scale, using pots and raised beds, for example. I hate to think of ever having to give up gardening completely. I am sure that being involved with gardening into old age has physical, emotional and social benefits, just as it does at any other age: keeping us connected to the cyclical rhythms and the beauty of the natural world. Sydney Eddison also talked about her enjoyment as she got older of becoming a sort of mentor to younger, fitter gardeners. I recall how the older people in my first garden club took me under their wing, giving me cuttings and tips, and generously sharing their knowledge - and we ageing gardeners have the chance to do the same to others.

This blog was first posted 9 October 2011; updated 17 October 2021.

There will be a stall selling lots of interesting plants suitable for Sydney gardens running from Saturday 23 October to Saturday 6 November 2021, to be held in front of 7 Boyd Avenue, West Pennant Hills. The stall is organised by Virginia Coote and will include many plants propagated from her garden. Proceeds will be donated to the Save the Children Fund and Mission Australia. There will be an honesty box for payment so make sure you have suitable notes and coins, as change won't be available. Also, please bring your own boxes or bags to carry your plants.


 Reader Comments

1/23  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 October 2011

How timely and thought provoking as I attack my spring pruning thinking to myself 'how long before it gets beyond me'!! I try to ignore the niggling thoughts at times such as 'do I enjoy it any more or is it becoming a chore When buying now it has to be 3 feet or less!! Regards.

Thanks, Maureen. I do think it is valuable to appraise plants in terms of how much maintenance they require and if they are worth it. Deirdre


2/23  Rae - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 October 2011

Oh Deirdre, I am so grateful for your mentoring. Your generosity with knowledge, cuttings, advice and for the invite to garden club in the first place is so very appreciated. Look around garden club and you're not in the older members set quite yet!

Thanks Rae. It is great to have a mixture of ages in a garden club so that everyone can share cuttings, knowledge and experiences! It is wonderful to know there are young gardeners around! Deirdre


3/23  Georgina - 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 October 2011

Deirdre,like you I was once a young gardener at garden club meetings but after a day in the garden on Saturday I was feeling very,very old and creaky that night.It took quite some time to straighten up and get the old bones moving,but come Sunday I was back in the garden. Can't help myself! Georgina

I know exactly what you mean! Deirdre


4/23  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 October 2011

Hmm sounds like just the book I need. My friends too are downsizing,and I keep thinking - not me, not yet, maybe never:-)Will try and get this book - thanks for the blog.

Thanks, Sue. Try Florilegium for the book. Deirdre


5/23  Dorothy - 4060 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 10 October 2011

Hello Deirdre, I am trying to change my gardening habits but firstly I am tidying up my whole garden and it is a big job. I hope to not have as much work to do when I replant but I do not want to lose my daylilies yet. Thank you for all your information. Kind regards, Dorothy, Brisbane.

Hope your tidy-up goes well. I want to evaluate which plants are causing me the most work and maybe phase some of them out! Deirdre


6/23  Lynette - 2780 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 10 October 2011

I am about to have a double hip replacement and this year have found gardening difficult. Like you I have thought through the makeup of my garden which is very high maintenace, have rationalised my borders and hopefully have created a longterm sustainable garden. Lynette

Hope all goes well for you Lynette. Deirdre


7/23  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 11 October 2011

loved this blog and can relate to it. Must buy that book, it is most inspiring. I started gardening when I was five years old, and have always loved the activity, but have come to realise, grudgingly, that things must change in the future. However, I trust I shall always have some sort of garden.

Thanks, Margaret. I am sure we have lots of gardening ahead of us! Deirdre


8/23  Beverley - 2113 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Saturday, 15 October 2011

One tip to help make gardening easier, I am 72,if you love roses as I do, try the old Tea Roses. They are very healthy and don"t need all the spraying, pruning,deadheading etc. They grow into large shrubs and flower nearly all year. All I do is feed with manure pellets a couple of times a year.

Thanks, Beverley. Your roses are magnificent! Deirdre


9/23  Margaret - 4350 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 02 November 2011

This book arrived yesterday - want to devour the whole lot at once; beautifully written and speaks to my heart. Like Sydney, I catch a glimpse in the mirror and think - who is that old woman? wait, it"s me! I found your this blog when looking for somthing else; Serendipidy a treasure thank you.

Thanks, Margaret. I really did enjoy the book and it was helpful for me. Deirdre


10/23  Richard - 2112 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Friday, 04 November 2011

My love of plants & gardening started as a pre-schooler in my grandparents garden, and it has been an obsession ever since. Now a busy 45yo professional & father of 3 highschoolers, & a dodgy back, I still try to steal a few mins each weekend in the garden. One day might have time to join a club!

Hopefully you will, Richard, as it is a great way to meet other gardeners and exchange cuttings!


11/23  Trish - 4169 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 21 November 2011

I"ve re-read this entry, as I do many others. I was thinking I would get the book for my older sister in the UK. She has a huge cold climate garden - rather like Sydney Eddison. I wonder if she"ll ever speak to me again??

It is tricky, but the book is very positive. Good luck if you do decide to give it to her! Deirdre


12/23  Diane - 3934 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 18 October 2021

I am trying to make the gardening easier now that my old body takes a couple of days to recover from garden maintenance, but I really love flowering plants. We derive so much joy in seeing whats emerging each day and I am still adding new plants to tend to and admire. I just spent an hour trying to find a nursery that has your current plant of the week, Nicotiana mutabilis, but had no luck. Photos of it are stunning so I hope I find one, even if it does require regular cutting back! I hope you can find the nicotiana. It is lovely. I have sometimes seen seed advertised. It grows from cuttings so maybe you might be able to find someone growing it and get a cutting. Deirdre


13/23  Jude - 4560 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 October 2021

Thanks so much, Deirdre, for a wonderful pos! I too am crippled by an arthritic hip, and must pay every time I turn the compost! I have to accept being slow, but with the help of an also-slowing-down partner and wonderful Sunshine Coast Hinterland soil and sunshine, the garden brings us more pleasure than I can say and we'll stay here as long as we can. We too are planting lots more bromeliads but so far there's not a salvia I wouldn't plant! About to source a copy of Gardening for a Lifetime. Oh I sympathise with you re the hip. I think there are lots of ways we can reduce maintenance so we can stay in our gardens. I feel I would be a lot worse off if I didn't have my garden for exercise! Deirdre


14/23  Zenda - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 October 2021

Thanks Dierdre, this article speaks to me so clearly (i am much older than you). I love so much of my garden but there are 'thugs' growing that I need to eliminate.it is hard finding the beautiful plants that stay a reasonable height and give joy. Yes it is a lot of trial and error to find well-behaved plants! I have got rid of most of the thugs I planted earlier on though some still linger! Deirdre


15/23  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 October 2021

Thank you Deirdre for this thought provoking Blog it rings so true - age does weary one in regard to capability in the garden. Something I thought I too would never have to face-but it is a fact!! Take care. It is certainly a challenge but I think there is a lot we can do to mitigate the problems. Deirdre


16/23  Georgina - 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 October 2021

10 years ! that means I'm 10 years older. My garden is as chaotic as ever, full of flowers and 'slips' from friends. Some still here and others gone. Memories! A euphorbia milii was the last thing my mum struck. She was 92 and still gardening. Plant on! Scary, isn't it. Where did that time go? How wonderful that your mother was still gardening at 92. Hope we still are then. Deirdre


17/23  Jennifer - 2228 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 October 2021

Thank you. Very timely as I have started this process. Just found this book 2nd hand online and look forward to reading. I hope you find the book useful. Deirdre


18/23  Anne - 4280 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 October 2021

Very timely post as we are about to move after 32 years on 5 acres south of Brisbane. Dreading deciding which pots to sell and what to take but we are planning to buy a house on at least half - one acre so should have space. (!!) Have over 200 pots big and small and they are all my babies!! Not to mention, of course, all my shrubs, trees and other stuff that I planted. Good luck, Anne! Deirdre


19/23  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Much relevant information! I have tried to reduce the number of plants requiring that annual cutting back, and not to allow plants, e.g. camellia and crepe myrtles to grow too tall. Still have some perennials, which I like, and also have annuals, in small numbers, which I can't relinquish! Tend to rely on the begonia family, which are not high-maintenance plants. Begonias are very useful for our gardens and I am relying on them more and more! Deirdre


20/23  Valerie - 2121 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 19 October 2021

This is a very relevant topic for us at the moment, especially with the amount of spring growth we are having here. A couple of years ago I gave away all the pots - too hard on the arthritic back. One is left, with you guessed it, bromeliads. The book sounds excellent, thanks. I think having a lot of pots in a big garden does make for extra work, with all that watering especially in summer. Deirdre


21/23  Jenny - 6160 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Love this - Thankyou for re-posting. Thanks for your feedback. Deirdre


22/23  Barbara - 2086 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 21 October 2021

thank you so so much for this blog which has greatly inspired me to NOT stop thinking about attempting to down-size and lower maintenance in my garden. I have read all the comments and have taken heart - i am not alone in this quest as we gardeners age. I have promised myself not to add any more pots and if any visitor admires a pot of anything, i gift it to them as they leave. I love my salvias which i learned about from your book and i will now be sure to keep them compact and smallish. thanks


23/23  Margaret - 4350 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Saturday, 23 October 2021

At age 85 I find that standard roses are just the right height -- no more bending over and then struggling to right myself; i can just reach across to sniff, deadhead and cut a glorious bunch for a vase.


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